When music conjures up a location, it’s usually working to a brief. Whether Debussy is expressing Spain through his Ibéria triptych, or Howard Shore is scoring Middle Earth, we the listeners are colouring the music with our own impressions. There is, however, a rarer practice of creating a location purely for the sake of the music; to allow sound itself to be the sole information we have about a place, fortified only by track names, album art, liner notes, and the odd interview.
Here are five locations that you cannot visit outside of their own soundtrack. The music is the location; its timbre, tonality, and lyrics shape the space, and when the album finishes, the listener departs. It’s a comical and playful practice, but one for which the artist must act deadly serious. The following resorts may be for relaxation, thrill-seeking, or something much more meaningful, and their music certainly has those effects.
Nothing by Kode9
Our first stop is Nothing, the third album by Kode9. The Scottish dubstep producer (and doctor of philosophy) has expressed an interest in “sonic fiction”- “the way in which stories can be told without words”. Nothing is a prime example of this, transporting us to the Notel, an evacuated luxury hotel inhabited by drones.
Much like the music itself, Nothing’s album art is glassy and minimal, with curved edges and sharp corners. After we’re guided forebodingly into the lounge by two tracks of heavy drones and solemn minor keys, the album kicks in with abrasive, glitchy force. This is countered by J-Pop vocal samples and airy, high-end pads. Hints of major seventh chords (look them up!) evoke a classic sense of relaxation and futuristic luxury, but something’s not quite right. Samples loop for longer than expected, beats drop in and out as if controlled by the esoteric calculations of a machine rather than by any human mind, and no track lasts as long as you’d like.
Nothing is Kode9’s first album without The Spaceape, his now-deceased MC, and it is filled with grief. The Spaceape’s familiar voice chimes in posthumously on Track 5, but he’s glitching uncontrollably. Something once so human has become dead and robotic, much like 9 Drones, a non-organic, soulless remix of Kode9’s famous Nine Samurai. We depart the Notel with Nothing Lasts Forever, ten devastating minutes of recorded silence, and we’re left realising that we signed up for more than we could handle; the Notel isn’t a relaxing stay where one forgets about their fears. It tries it’s best to be a getaway, but it leaves too many gaps, and those gaps are filled with sadness.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino by the Arctic Monkeys
Our next resort caused a bit of an uproar when it first opened its doors. The Arctic Monkeys’ sound changed markedly with this record, and the entire thing’s wrapped up in a neat little concept. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a luxury resort on the moon, located where Neil and Buzz first landed. Alex Turner’s voice opens with a tongue-in-cheek, almost Shatneresque croon. The music is overtly loungey, making extensive use of jazz chords and scales delivered by twangy guitars and spacey marimbas. Some songs are catchy, especially “She Looks Like Fun” and “Four Stars Out Of Five”, with a lyrical hook that’s reminiscent of a hotel review.
It’s like we’re sat in Tranquility Base’s lounge, and the Arctic Monkeys are the house band. They’re smooth and relaxing, but there’s something poignant hidden here, and although “unsettling” isn’t the best word for it, the Monkeys are definitely feigning comfort. When the production leaves so much buried beneath the surface, it’s hard not to feel like the band are mocking us tourists for not searching deeper for those heavy topics.
Bucketheadland 2 by Buckethead
Not all resorts are relaxing. Bucketheadland 2 is the second Buckethead album set in his eponymous “abusement park”. Much like a real theme park, Bucketheadland is not a subtle place. Throughout the thirty tracks the listener is welcomed, informed, and cautioned by a slow-talking announcer of the utmost apathy. He warns us that Bucketheadland is not liable for loss of limbs, and reminds us in “Today’s Schedule” that “if you see Buckethead setting up corpses like an audience, there’s a good chance of live music”. We also hear cameos from the likes of Bootsy Collins, playing the bizarre customers and denizens of the park. In between these sound bites is the substance of the album: incredibly heavy, dark, funky, hilarious songs that sonically express the rides and other amusements.
Standing out is the gut-bustingly heavy speed metal of “John Merrick – Elephant Man Bones Explosion”, whose dissonant shredding and chugging chords puts you on edge like a good ride should. “Bloody Rainbow Spiraling Sherbert Scoop”, presumably a revolting snack to be found at the park, is a collection of funk-metal riffs of the utmost filth. The way that Buckethead starts a riff, gets bored of it, moves on to another, revisits an old one, and then throws in an announcement or two, all within a few minutes, makes us feel like a child at the fair. The lights, the rides, the signs, the smells- it’s hard to focus on any one thing for too long, and when you’re sent on the thrill of a lifetime, it’s over all too soon and the adrenaline comes crashing down to another dull tannoy feed. It’s interestingly comparable to Nothing in its impatience; no luxury ever lasts for long, though in Bucketheadland’s case, you may not want it to.
At The Heart Of Winter by Immortal
It seems that metalheads love making up their own locations. It’s probably something to do with playing too much Dungeons & Dragons. Norwegian black metal legends Immortal have been setting their music in Blashyrkh since the early 90s, and this album wraps up that location in a neat (and freezing) little bow. Blashyrkh is a “demon and battle-filled” landscape modelled on rural Norway and the isolation one feels there. Although not what one may think of as a resort, it’s fair to say that Immortal take us there with an air of welcoming.
The music is certainly heavy, with tremolo picking and thrashy riffs, using melancholy minor keys reminiscent of Scandinavian folk and classical. That said, the rhythms are galloping and fast-paced, and nothing’s telling you to leave. Even the foreboding album art has a somewhat mystical and inviting air. Then-frontman Abbath once said that if Immortal were from Hawaii, their music would sound very different. Although it seems obvious, that quote throws up an interesting point; black metal could only have been born in Scandinavia. The music itself is cold, especially the trebly guitar tones and thinly screeched vocals, and when listened to whilst enduring some of the blistering summers we’ve had lately, it’s hard not to pine for the frosty tundras of Blashyrkh.
Travelogue by The Human League
I’ll admit, this last one stretches the definition of a concept album, but it’s old, obscure, and in my opinion better than my other option Plastic Beach (sorry, fans!). The Human League’s second album, recorded when they were an avant-garde all-male synth quartet, transports the listener to the outer reaches of space like no other. Similar to Kraftwerk, but with a more complex and catchy approach to songwriting, Travelogue features philosophical and science-fictional themes to the max. Some synths are echoey and spacey, some are biting and heavy, some are industrial and noisy.
The Human League use the mixolydian mode, a musical scale which has been associated with outer space ever since Holst composed Jupiter, and was later replicated in the opening theme to Star Trek. Our old friend the major seventh chord wubs through a filter on their closing track to express the pulsating waves of WXJL, the last manned radio station on earth after all other stations have become automated. Dreams of Leaving tells the tale of a man leaving his job and running away, and Toyota City, the album’s only instrumental, creates a slick, east-asian future in our minds in only three minutes where Vangelis would need an hour.
That astral trip concludes this holiday. If you fancy some escapism, possibly tinged with humour, fear, existential dread and a good hard look at yourself, then dip in to any of the above! It seems that such concept albums aren’t produced very often (except by Buckethead, who’s recorded hundreds), but I hope that in about fifty years I can write about five more!